Long Point

Written by Helen G. Ebersole

Long Point is one of the distinctive features of Chautauqua Lake. Created by a moraine of the glacier which covered much of western New York over 10,000 years ago, it is a long slim finger pointing into the deepest part of the lake. There is evidence that early people of prehistory as well as native Americans found this place of abode and sojourn before white settlers entered the country in the early 1800s. Since that time, a panorama of figures - settlers, eccentrics, developers, showmen, vacationers, and vandals - have created a succession of curious and entertaining tales.

Before there was any permanent settlement at this spot, the Griffiths family, pioneers who gave their name to Griffiths Point, took overnight refuge there in 1806. Jeremiah Griffith, his wife and four children traveling from Mayville on small sleds over the lake’s frozen surface, became lost in a blinding, swirling snowstorm just at dusk. Long Point’s welcoming splinter of land extended into their path, and they were able to spend the night under a makeshift shelter of hemlock boughs.

John Thompson, of obscure origins and history, was the first owner of Long Point which he bought from the Holland Land Company in 1809. During those years, Thompson apparently cleared the land and was a successful farmer. Eleven years later the point was sold to a Quaker, Nathan Aldrich who, in the two years that he owned the property, gained a wide reputation for growing peaches. Described as "stern-faced and six feet four inches tall," Aldrich had a kindly nature. When he encountered some youths in his orchard checking to see if the "peaches were a mellerin", he generously advised them, "Help theeself: eat thee fill; but pocket none!"

At mid-century Long Point was the private hunting and fishing preserve of Robert Charles Johnson from Westfield. He hosted his friends and neighbors at large hunting parties. Historians of those days have made special mention of the large numbers of game birds, especially pigeons, that inhabited the area. They recounted that flocks of passenger pigeons stretched several miles long and their wings beating the air sounded like distant thunder. Even the most amateur Nimrod could fill his bag in a short space of time. Nets were used to catch them in greater numbers. Enough pigeons could be killed for a fresh squab dinner by simply placing a tall pole upright in the air, and allowing the birds to fly against it.

Characterized as an eccentric, Johnson lived in a rustic cabin whose chief feature was a large room with buck horn furniture and accessories. A large window giving a broad view of the lake and the landscape covered one entire wall of that room. The telescope located near the window indicated that the window had a utilitarian as well as aesthetic purpose. Johnson did not welcome poachers and kept a loaded fowling piece nearby to warn them off.

Johnson was described as a man firm in his opinions. He employed a cook, well-known for her culinary skills. One of his many huntsman-guests advised him that he should marry the cook in order that she would remain with him. Johnson was astonished and confidently replied that no one could coax her away from him. He added that it was just as likely that someone would steal his faithful horse, Prince. For good measure, he concluded, if someone took his cook, they could have his horse also! Several days later, not only the guest, but also the cook and the horse disappeared. Johnson seems to have taken his loss philosophically, apparently missing a means of transport more than he missed his tasty food. After an unsuccessful attempt to break a team of aggressive stock horses he whipping them into a nonstop race to Westfield, he settled for a pair of mules. Once again Johnson’s eccentricity was confirmed since mules were seldom see in these parts.

After the Civil War, Long Point became a popular picnic site. On the traditional summer holidays, the large steamboats, loaded with merrymakers, traveled from both ends of the lake to this picturesque spot. During the decades of the 1870s and 1880s, Long Point held a monopoly on such activities. The owners during that period were alert to the commercial possibilities of attracting ever larger crowds. Perry Barnes, who later built up Maple Springs as a resort area, owned Long Point for a few years after 1869. He built a substantial dock to allow the largest steamboats to unload. He provided a two-story picnic pavilion for dining and dancing, and cleared ground for croquet and baseball fields.

A prosperous oil-field developed, Henry Harley, bought several of the large lake steamboats and in 1873 operated them as the Chautauqua Lake Navigation Company. At the same time, he bought acreage at Long Point and built himself a fine mansion. In order to increase the excursion business for his steamers, he added to, and improved, the attractions instituted by Perry Barnes. Balloon ascensions, fireworks, races, swimming exhibitions, and keenly contested baseball and lacrosse games became traditional and eagerly-anticipated events on the summer calendar at Long Point.

During the summer of 1877 a demonstration of life-saving equipment was held off the shore of Long Point. Supported by bags of corks secured about their waists, the three participants bobbed about in the water enjoying the cheers of witnesses which crowded four large steamboats gathered nearby. The event had been advertised as a spectacular entertainment. It also led the way to an improvement in life-saving equipment. Early life preservers were simply pine boards five feet long.

As the number of summertime visitors increased in the 1880s, the managers of Long Point became more ambitious in their offerings. The peak was reached in 1887 when A. E. Allen, the proprietor of Allen’s Opera House in Jamestown, leased the park for the season. He operated the park as a full-scale amusement park, offering entertainment every day, not just on holidays or for special excursions. He instituted an entry fee for all visitors. Tickets were sold on board the steamers. The 100 foot long dock was fenced in to insure that all had paid the fee.

The prime attraction during that season was the zoo. It was located in a 200 foot enclosure containing ten cages which held a wide assortment of animals. The collection varied widely from a pair of storks and a cage of exotic birds - cockatoos, macaws, and parrots - though the gentle and amusing - three bear cubs, and monkeys of all sizes - to the fierce and foreign - a pair of young lions, a Bengal tiger, a leopard and a wild boar. Large animals were not caged, but chained to posts - a camel, an elk, and a huge Indian elephant named Tip who provided the most dramatic show of that summer.

An eyewitness to the adventures of Tip on July 2, 1887 has speculated that Tip, a circus elephant, accustomed to greater freedom of movement, became irritated with the limited space allowed by his chain. He suddenly became "raving mad," pawing the ground and pulling desperately at his moorings until he broke loose! The helpless animal keepers ran from his path, and Tip made straight for the highway and headed for Jamestown!

Word of the escape passed rapidly down the lake through the recently installed telephone system. Conventional wisdom of the day held that only a man riding a white horse could put a stop to this wild dash. Those who were traveling on the lake road, unaware of the event, seeing the body at a distance thought it was a load of hay. They were terror-stricken as they discerned the mass to be moving, and to take shape of a huge mountain of elephant flesh. Other factors added to this apparition of horror. Tip’s front legs had been loosely chained together and the metal ends swinging wildly with each huge stride, created an unearthly rattle and jangle. As he rushed along the dry unpaved road, the elephant’s big feet threw dirt high into the air, surrounding the beast with a cloud of dust as high as the treetops. Awed observers were convinced that they were seeing a creature from nether regions and that the end of the world could be at hand.

The adventure ended peacefully in Fluvanna although the presence of a rider on a white horse has not been documented. Tip was easily captured as he stood bathing in the cooling waters of Chautauqua Lake.

The dramatic account of Tip’s escapade two days before the Fourth of July created such interest in Long Point that crowds numbering in the thousands visited the park that holiday. Nevertheless, the entire season was not enough of a financial success to cover the costs of Mr. Allen’s extensive changes. At the end of August the entire zoo was dismantled and sent to a traveling circus with headquarters in Philadelphia.

Long Point was a private estate during much of the Twentieth Century. It was bought by Frank Gifford, a Jamestown banker and son-in-law of Governor Rueben E. Fenton, late in 1887. He spent his summers in a mansion built by Henry Harley in the 1870s, and leased the recreational facilities to the Jamestown, Chautauqua, and Lake Erie Railroad which built a station, called "Giffords" on the Long Point property. In spite of the additional accessibility the park’s popularity lessened. In the 1890s Celoron, and soon thereafter Midway, replaced it as a holiday amusement park.

Every evidence of the public park disappeared in 1908. At that time Gifford leased the entire property to Ralph Preston of New York for a period of ten years. During those years Preston built himself a fine, modern summer home after razing the earlier Harley mansion.

When Preston’s lease expired, the Giffords made Long Point their home until Gifford’s death in 1934. His well-appointed yacht "Onosee" became a familiar sight on the lake as he used it for daily transport back and forth to his bank office in Jamestown. At the time of his death it was reportedly scuttled off Long Point in one of the deepest spots on the lake.

The property continued to be family holding until 1954 when Cecile Fenton Minturn, the Giffords’ daughter, deeded the 140 acres to the state for development as a park. Additional acreage was added by bequest and purchase and Long Point State Park officially opened in 1968. A marina, swimming beach, and picnic facilities are all well-patronized facilities. The elegant Minturn home was included in the gift to the state. In the years since the park opened, the mansion has stood untenanted. Lack of financial means to develop it into a public facility had left it subject to the disintegrating forces of vandals and the weather.

SOURCE: Submitted by Loraine C. Smith, 2004